FOXBOROUGH — Standing in front of his locker Monday at Gillette Stadium, Michael Hoomanawanui described his first season with the Patriots as only he could.
“It’s been a whirlwind,’’ said the soft-spoken tight end with the polysyllabic Polynesian surname.
If that was the case, the week leading up to Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens must have been something.
Thrust into media attention after the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui conducted numerous interviews and gave the media lessons on the accurate pronunciation of his name.
For the record: It’s Uh-oh-ma-na-wa-nui.
Hoomanawanui, who made five catches for 109 yards this season, went from “Who’s he?’’ to the front line when Gronkowski missed five games after fracturing his left forearm Nov. 18 against the Colts.
Gronkowski returned for the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, leaving Hoomanawanui to drop back to third on the depth chart.
When Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve Thursday, Hoomanawanui was summoned to help fill the huge void along with fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Daniel Fells was listed as inactive against the Texans last Sunday, but his status might change against the Ravens.
“Obviously, you never want to see anyone in that position, especially a guy you spend so much time with day in and day out,’’ Hoomanawanui said of Gronkowski.
“It definitely stunk,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “But it’s next man up, and we filled in nicely and did what we did the first time against the Texans and, hopefully, we can keep that going.’’
During Gronkowski’s initial absence, Hoomanawanui played in all five games.
He made three consecutive starts at the end of the regular season and made three catches for 87 yards in the last two games, including a long of 41 yards against San Francisco.
“Live game situations are different from practice,’’ said Hoomanawanui, who made his first of six starts with the Patriots as a fullback in a 31-30 setback at Baltimore in Week 3.
“To get those live reps toward the end of the season, then going into the playoffs and having this situation come about, it definitely helped,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “So the live game situations helped us get prepared for the playoffs.’’
The loss of Gronkowski will hurt, but the Patriots have the personnel to withstand the loss.
“The depth on our team at that position is a strength,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady. “As opposed to last year where we had only two guys [Gronkowski and Hernandez] on the roster.
“Now that we’ve got four in there, they’re four who have all helped us win a lot of games,’’ Brady said. “Now that it comes down to this week, there is nothing that’s happened in the past that’s going to influence this week, so we need to be at our best this week.’’
Tight ends included.
But, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed out, it is unreasonable to expect the tight ends to shoulder the burden of replacing Gronkowski, who had 55 catches for 790 yards and 11 TDs this season, but whose greatest attribute was his ability to create matchup problems for opposing defenses.
“I don’t think it’s really fair to say you just plug somebody in and off you go,’’ said McDaniels, who was Hoomanawanui’s offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2011. “But I thought Michael did a great job with the things we asked him to do [last Sunday].’’
Although Hoomanawanui was not targeted by Brady in the playoff win over the Texans, “He certainly did a good job in protection and in the running game, and really played a valuable role for us there,’’ McDaniels said.
With Gronk back on the shelf, Hoomanawanui has settled into more of a solid role on the team.
“Coming in here, I was trying to find a significant role,’’ he said. “Starting off playing a little fullback, things I’ve done before, but really putting it in concrete in the game.’’
It wasn’t long thereafter that he had his playing time increase.
“Three plays, five plays [a game] turned into 15 plays or 20 toward the end of the season, playing significant roles, 40-plus plays,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind from the beginning of the season.’’
Now that he has earned his first career appearance in a conference title game, Hoomanawanui hopes to withstand all the bluster before the real whirlwind strikes Sunday.
“The intensity goes up, but when you’re in practice and meetings, as football players we look at it as another game,’’ he said. “There’s a heightened sense of things going on, but for us it’s another football game. Obviously, it’s win or go home.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.